Elimu International is studying the academic environment to discover how conducive it is to the successful graduation of African-Caribbean students from marginalised backgrounds.
This research is important because the attainment gap between African-Caribbean students and their white counterparts presents a challenge for UK higher education outcomes. Almost three-quarters of large graduate employers require a minimum of an upper second-class degree (Stevenson, 2012), yet African-Caribbean students are 25% less likely to achieve this than their white counterparts.
Evans et al (2015) describe the attainment gap as an ethical, social and economic imperative. Their 2015 report on ‘Black and Minority Ethnic Student Attainment at UCL’ focused on three key components of the student experience (Figure 1), which will be adopted in our research as the guiding themes.
Figure 1. Key Components of Student Experience (Evans et al, 2015)
Hunter Gehlbach and his colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found that ethnic minority students perform better when they find they have something in common with their teachers (Penman and Vedantam, 2015). This is concerning because BME teachers are underrepresented at every level of Higher Education (Steel, 2015). Evans et al (2015) use the findings from their UCL study to highlight calls for BME mentors and a need to move towards a more inclusive syllabus. A lack of understanding of cultural connotations and background could have a significant impact on intercultural communication as well as teaching activities (Gbadamosi, 2018:129). On the other hand, BME students may face family or community obligations (Evans et al, 2015) which affect their levels of commitment. Elevation Networks Trust (2012) found that ‘new universities’ are more attractive to BME students because they cater to their student experience. They found that the ability to balance study with parenthood and/or work, as well as the ability to foster a sense of belonging amongst peers, could reflect the fact that there are more African-Caribbean students at University of East London than the top 20 UK Universities combined (Elevation Networks, 2012). Conversely, the ‘I too am Oxford’ campaign highlighted the concerns of some ethnic minority students at prestigious universities, who felt that their presence was questioned (Haidrani, 2014).
Evans et al (2015) found that even after controlling the following personal factors, the attainment gap persisted for BME students (except Other Black, Mixed and Other groups):
- subject of study
- type of HE institution attended
- type of Level 3 qualifications
- mode of study
- term-time accommodation
They found that the residual gap is yet to be definitively explained, as there is a lack of in-depth research (Evans et al, 2015; Richardson, 2013). Nonetheless, there are a number of campaigns that are addressing this issue, including Black Education Matters, Black in Academia: Staying the Course and Decolonising the Curriculum. The work of such initiatives, along with this research, has the potential to create a more holistic academic environment, which can reduce the attainment gap, improve continuation rates and ultimately produce succesful graduates.